Honesty time. I miss a lot of films, most of them are the big movies everyone talks about, the one’s you rush out to see on Friday night and forget you saw only weeks later. Movies come and movies go, but these days I don’t go to the movies. So, it’s no surprise to me when someone mentions a recent film and I haven’t seen it, but usually I’ve heard of it. Yes, sometimes generic titles make every film sound similar, like faux movie titles from Seinfeld. I can’t keep two word titles straight to save my life. Was Intolerable Crueltyy the comedy or was that Cruel Intentions?
Cutter’s Way was made years before I refined my taste or before my budget refined it for me. How I never saw this film or barely recall its title ever being mentioned is beyond me. This booze soaked modern noir delivers one of the greatest crime stories of the 80’s. Based on a novel called Cutter and Bone, John Heard and Jeff Bridges star in the titular roles, respectively. Though Bone gets dropped from the film’s title, it is in essence his story that is being told. After his car breaks down and a discarded body is found near his abandoned ride Bone is suspected of murder. However, crippled, one-eyed, Vietnam vet Alex Cutter has another theory. He suspects that the real killer is a local industrialist. Knowing that no one will believe their wild accusations, Cutter decides to take the case into his own hands, piecing together clues and spinning a wild whiskey soaked web of paranoia. Bone gets caught up in Cutter’s schemes.
Heard delivers an on edge performance, teetering between comical and scary. There is a sense of true inebriation in Cutter, with scatter shot lines sounding like buckshot firing from a loose canon. Credit certainly needs to be given to screenwriter, Jeffery Allen Fiskin, for providing Cutter with memorable non-sequiturs. Due credit need also be given to Heard for being able to transform such lines into gold. Acting is tough, acting drunk without making it seem like you are acting drunk is very tough. That he succeeds is something of a miracle. I do not mean to discredit Heard’s acting ability, but truly he takes his character down a road that could lead to genius or foolishness. Bridges on the other hand has a less difficult role. Wisely, he takes a back seat to Heard’s show stealing, but Bridges’ low-key performance is a personal best, with smirks and body gesture delivering true sentiment. I’m hesitant to give credit to Ivan Passer, the director, for particular acting choices. Having never seen another Passer directed picture nor recognizing a single title in his filmography, I am apt to believe he lucked into the good graces of two performers who just happened to be on the mark.
As for the look and feel of the picture Passer may deserve more credit, or perhaps credit should go to Jordan Cronenweth, the film’s cinematographer. Looking more like Rolling Thunder and less like Blade Runner – two other substantial titles to Cronenweth’s credit, Cutter’s Way has a very interesting visual style composed of long takes that use the full scope of the widescreen space with characters moving in and out of warm pockets of natural lighting. It’s a rather odd choice for a film that gets referred to as a modern noir, to be so rooted in sunny waterside locations such as country clubs and marinas. The glamorous locations do hide the shadowy underworld of perversion and corruption that is so often thought of in black and white noir films. If anything, the bright, colorful scenery play against Cutter’s paranoid theories, making it hard to believe or want to believe that a place that looks like paradise could be shadow and corrupt.
Still, it is not hard to imagine that those in power commit crimes and get away with it. That’s a thought that has been around since the beginning of time. In this respect Cutter’s Way is nothing illuminating. The fact that the hope for justice lies in the head and one hand of whacked out Vietnam Vet who can’t be totally trusted is something new and it’s what make Cutter’s Way so unique and so entertaining. You have to become as paranoid as Cutter to go along with the film, at the same time Cutter is the last guy whom you’d want to go along with. Cutter’s way of doing things is anything but normal. It’s down right frightening because Cutter is at rope’s end and for the most part, we all like to think we aren’t that far down. We side with Bone. We understand his hesitancy to go along with Cutter’s plans. But, to do so let’s the bad guy get away.
It’s amazing that I missed this film, never even heard of it. Perhaps, I mistook it for Cannery Row. I certainly know better now. Still, you’d think I would have caught it on cable, had someone whispering in my ear telling me to see it, but for nearly 25 years I just plumb overlooked this gem and now I am feeling a little bit sorry. Cutter’s Way doesn’t top a lot of critical lists, nor does it exactly fall into the field of “cult classic”. It’s one of those oh-so rare cases when a Hollywood production produces the unexpected. It seemed to happen a lot more often in the 70’s, but this film proves that even up into the early 80’s and possibly today there are great films hidden in the cracks of Sunset Boulevard. It’s not enough to make me rush out to the theatres and make sure I don’t miss something, but it does give me pause to think of what other lesser known titles I may have passed on by.